There is no more accurate way of describing last night’s 60 Minutes segment on Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida than as a political hit job. It was an aspersion, a slander, a smear — a calculated and premeditated calumny contrived for one purpose and one purpose alone: To hint darkly at scandal where none exists, and, thereby, to damage DeSantis in 2022 and beyond. Americans who tuned in to 60 Minutes yesterday are now less informed than they were before it aired.
The supposed “problem” that 60 Minutes highlighted was that Florida’s government has used the popular grocery chain Publix to help it distribute COVID-19 vaccines, that Publix gave $100,000 to Governor DeSantis’s re-election efforts last year, and that the combination of the two represents a quid pro quo.
This claim is absurd on its face. Not only is Publix the largest and most widely trusted grocery-store chain in the state of Florida, but the majority of its 831 stores in the state have well-equipped pharmacies at which Floridians are accustomed to getting flu shots. Irrespective of any other logistical considerations, it would have been surprising if Publix had not been one of the major players in the state’s effort. It is true that Publix has recently given $100,000 to Ron DeSantis’s gubernatorial reelection bid. It is also true that it gave a million dollars to the progressive Urban League last year, and that, back in 2018, it gave $100,000 to Democratic campaigns in the state. To believe that there is a connection between this routine behavior and decisions that were made during an unforeseen once-in-a-century pandemic is to stretch oneself to the breaking point.
The producers of 60 Minutes know this, which is why they edited out the portion of Governor DeSantis’s answer that explains beyond question why Publix was chosen for its role. In the offending segment, CBS’s Sharyn Alfonsi is seen asking DeSantis, “Publix, as you know, donated $100,000 to your campaign, and then you rewarded them with the exclusive rights to distribute the vaccination in Palm Beach. How is that not pay for play?” But only DeSantis’s initial response is shown in full. Deliberately missing from the governor’s comments was his detailed answer laying out how the distribution system has worked in Florida in general, and how Publix has slotted into it in particular. In the unaired portion, DeSantis says:
First of all, the first pharmacies that had [the vaccine] were CVS and Walgreens and they had a long-term care mission, so they were going to the long-term care facilities. They got the vaccine in the middle of December, they started going to the long-term care facilities the third week in December to do LTCs. So that was their mission, that was very important and we trusted them to do that. As we got into January, we wanted to expand the distribution points.
So yes, you had the counties, you had some drive-thru sites, you had hospitals that were doing a lot, but we wanted to get it into communities more. So we reached out to other retail pharmacies: Publix, Walmart, obviously CVS and Walgreens had to finish that mission and we said we’re going to use you as soon as you’re done with that.
None of this was apparent to viewers of 60 Minutes. The show did not note that CVS and Walgreens got the vaccine first; it did not explain the difference between the strategy for long-term-care facilities and the strategy for the broader population; it did not mention that Walmart was also used in the delivery of vaccines to the general public; it did not reference the work DeSantis has done extending the state’s effort to minority communities; and, crucially, it did not make clear that the reason Publix was so prominent in the second phase of vaccinations was that it was the first grocery chain to be ready. Instead, the show took two facts that in no way intersect and pretended that they had a causal relationship. There is a word for that sort of conduct, but it’s not “journalism.”
So egregiously dishonest was 60 Minutes’ attempt that, shortly after it aired, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management took to Twitter to condemn it. “I said this before and I’ll say it again,” Jared Moskowitz wrote. “Publix was recommended by FLSERT [State Emergency Response Team] and HealthyFla [Florida Department of Health] as the other pharmacies were not ready to start. Period! Full Stop! No one from the Governors office suggested Publix. It’s just absolute malarkey.” Moskowitz, note, is no ideological ally of Governor DeSantis. On the contrary: He describes himself as a “progressive,” served as a Democrat in the Florida legislature until 2019, and has worked in various capacities for Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Barack Obama. His father, Michael, is one of the top Democratic fundraisers in the state.
Unlike the producers of 60 Minutes, however, Jared Moskowitz is not a liar.
Alas, he is fighting against the tide. 60 Minutes’ lies will now be laundered and repeated until, in millions of minds around the country, they are habitually referenced as “facts.” In that status they will be joined by the oft-repeated lie that Florida has been “cooking its books,” which it has not. From the moment the pandemic began, the mainstream press has proven itself incapable of writing about Florida as anything less than a mysterious, godforsaken backwater that, somehow, has managed to stumble through this crisis despite itself. That Florida ranks in the middle of the pack for deaths, despite having the fourth-oldest population in the country and being the destination of choice for young people, seems not to matter. Nor do many commentators seem much to care that Florida has done this while managing to stay largely open; that there have been real, verifiable, and under-covered scandals elsewhere; that the most populous state in the union is holding a recall election for its governor over his COVID response; or that, at the moment the 60 Minutes segment ran, it was not Florida that was in crisis, but Michigan.
In part, this monomaniacal failure of imagination has been the product of the false reputation that Florida enjoys among a certain sort of sneering Acela-corridor journalist. Bubbling below the surface of all of last year’s coverage has been an unlovely implication: “That guy, in that state? Something tricky must be going on.” Last night, 60 Minutes made that explicit.
As it turned out, though, it wasn’t DeSantis who was playing games with the truth. It was CBS.